Syracuse couldn't have picked a better day to play its best game of the season. Coming off an emotional 74-73 victory over the Cincinnati Bearcats, SU still had more work to do to guarantee a bid to the NCAA tourney. Even with yesterday's win, it seemed unlikely that SU could muster the courage and skill to beat the nation's #1 ranked team. This generation of Orange(men) had been too inconsistent and too distracted all year long, and SU fans didn't really know what to expect entering Thursday afternoon. It turns out that they were treated to a brilliant surprise.
This was the team that the fans had been waiting to see all season. This was the team that had a fiery and active power forward in Terrence Roberts… a team with a plucky firebrand of a freshman in Eric Devendorf… a dominating anchor in the middle with Darryl Watkins… and a multi-faceted wing scorer in Demetris Nichols. Most of all, this was a team whose heart and soul was capable of hitting huge shots and setting up his teammates for easy scores. This was Syracuse basketball the way Syracuse basketball was meant to be played.
The Orange used a diversified and active offense to keep the Huskies off balance all afternoon. UConn's strategy, as always, was to deny Gerry McNamara open looks at the basket. While this outlook worked well in limiting Gerry's scoring, it also opened things up for a dynamic display of passing. The UConn players seemed to be paying so much attention to GMac that they collectively forgot about guarding many of the other SU players.
After forcing the action so much in previous games against UConn, McNamara played a poised, under control game. He repeatedly broke past Marcus Williams and threw pinpoint passes to teammates for open scores. His passing was so efficient that he registered 10 assists in the first half alone.
The Orange came out fired up, scoring the game's first 10 points, mostly in transition. Demetris Nichols got things started by making a conscious effort to get out in the open court, where he could use his speed and length. His first basket came on sweet three point play where he pulled a reverse lay-up after catching a great pass from McNamara. He followed that up with another transition bucket for 5 early points.
A real key to today's win was that SU never let UConn go on one of their patented runs. UConn has always been a team that thrives on momentum, but somehow Syracuse managed to keep the Huskies from breaking out on any 16-2 or 21-4 type of scoring outbursts. UConn did tally three 9-0 runs during the course of the game, but never managed to extend them into the double digit category.
The Huskies' initial 9-0 run came in response to SU's 10-0 onslaught that opened the game. Connecticut got back into it by forcing the ball inside, drawing several fouls and converting the free throws with ease. But Syracuse didn't wilt under the pressure. The Orange regained their composure with Terrence Roberts scoring on a putback and Nichols scoring on another transition dunk assisted by McNamara.
Once SU had taken UConn's first counterpunch, they seemed to settle into a good 1st half rhythm. Syracuse maintained about a 4 to 7 point lead for most of the half, until the Huskies closed the gap to 30-28 on a Marcus Williams (17 pts, 11 ast) layup at the 2:23 mark. Rather than fall apart like they did earlier in the season in Storrs, Syracuse regrouped and finished out the half with a flurry. Eric Devendorf and Terrance Roberts combined for 9 points over the last two minutes thanks to three beautiful passes from McNamara and SU went into the break with a 39-28 lead.
A renewed defensive intensity was immediately apparent right after the tip-off. The zone was mobile and omnipresent, contesting every deep shot and scrapping for every rebound. McNamara and Devendorf (13 pts) were jumping on loose balls with reckless abandon, and most importantly Mookie Watkins (14 pts, 8 reb, 3 bs) was playing MANSIZED in the paint. Connecticut coach Jim Calhoun seemed somewhat baffled by the fact that his pet play [dumping the ball to the mid-baseline and sending a cutter through the paint] wasn't working.
Watkins simply wasn't buying it. In the past, Mookie would take a step out on that baseline player, leaving the middle open for the cutter, who would usually catch and dunk. Tonight he held his ground as well as any SU center in recent memory has against UConn. And even when he didn't, weakside wingman Demetris Nichols (17 pts, 5 reb) was there to slide into the paint and deflect any interior pass that made it by Watkins.
With the interior play shut down early, Connecticut went to the perimeter and started to indiscriminantly launch up three pointers. They connected on 10 triples, but it took them 32 tries to make that many. Their best offense on the afternoon was getting to the free throw line, where they converted 28 of 31 shots at a remarkable 91.3% clip. If not for their marksmanship at the line, the Huskies would not have been able to mount a comeback.
Syracuse opened the second stanza much like it did the first. Darryl Watkins and Gerry McNamara combined to score 10 points in the first 3:15 of the half, with McNamara's first 3-point field goal of the game giving SU a 49-35 lead. This proved to be SU's largest lead. Against a weaker team, the Orange might have been able to relax a bit, but against a team as explosive as UConn, they knew another push was coming.
The Huskies reeled of second 9-0 run over the next three minutes and suddenly that large lead was back down to 5. UConn continued to whittle away, but SU got an unexpected spark from back-up point guard Josh Wright. The sophomore speedster came off the bench to hit a floating baseline shot, then drilled a huge three pointer from the corner. Louie McCroskey (4 pts, 6 reb, 2 ast) assisted on the play.
It's worth pointing out that McCroskey played an important roll in this game with his constant hustle and rebounding. He dove to the floor during several scrums (have you ever seen a game with more "jump ball" calls?) and played within the flow of the SU offense for the first time in ages.
Gerry McNamara's three pointer with just over 6 minutes left gave the Orange a 9 point lead, but Connecticut simply wouldn't go away. Hilton Armstrong (14 pts, 11 reb) continued to pound away inside, making 4 successive free throws and fouling out Terrence Roberts in the process. The last of these free throws tied up the game.
With SU needing to make a play to regain some direction on the offensive end, Demetris Nichols made the biggest shot of his career. He drove into the lane and stopped with a fake, then sank a fallaway jumper to give SU a 67-65 lead. The two teams went back and forth over the closing minutes but eventually Eric Devendorf put the Orange up two with successive layups.
But Connecticut was relentless at this point and kept coming back. Rashad Anderson (10 pts, 2 reb) hit a long three pointer to give UConn its first lead with 30 seconds left. Boeheim called timeout to set up a play and inserted a small 3-guard lineup to try to get a quickness advantage over the taller Huskies. The play broke down and Josh Wright ended up taking an off-balanced double-clutch shot, surely not what Boeheim had designed. Denham Brown rebounded the ball and was quickly fouled. He made both of his free throws, giving the Huskies a 74-71 lead.
This opened the door for McNamara heroics, part deux. Inexplicably, Calhoun elected not to foul on the ensuing inbounds and Gerry (17 pts, 13 asts) got a relatively free path up court. Unlike Wednesday afternoon's game, when he had to juke two players to get his shot off, this time he simply speed up court and pulled up for an open look about 2 feet behind the NBA line. BUCKETS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! No player in SU history has even come close to making the number of game-tying or game-winning shots that this kid has made. To do it on back to back days, in Madison Square Garden, in the spotlight of ESPN is simply amazing.
UConn scrambled for a final shot and Marcus Williams got a good look at the basket, but couldn't knock it down. The game headed into OT, where it seemed likely that SU would be too physically drained to hold on.
With Roberts already out of the game, Boeheim went with a small lineup. The ‘Cuse managed only two field goals in regulation, but the most important one was a Darryl Watkins old-fashioned three point play to give SU an 79-78 lead midway through the extra session.
From that point on, the Orange managed to milk the lead by hitting 7 of 8 from the charity stripe down the stretch. UConn's Denham Brown (20 pts, 6 reb) hit two incredible three pointers to keep the game close, but Nichols and Watkins both connected on a pair of free throws. McNamara helped out, hitting 3 of 4, although he surprisingly missed a shot that would have put SU up 3 with 17 seconds left.
Marcus Williams, who played a superb game, had another chance to tie it near the end, but his floating 13-footer hit off the front of the rim and Syracuse hung on for a miraculous 86-84 victory. This was the second time that the Orange(men) have beaten the Huskies when they were ranked #1. The last time this happened (1999), the Huskies went on to beat Duke in the national championship game.
With the victory, SU improves to 21-11 overall. The win should propel SU into the top 30 of the RPI and raise their strength of schedule into the top 5. At this point, it is extremely unlikely that the Orange would be left out of the NCAA tournament with a resume like that. A win tomorrow would remove every shadow of a doubt. With this momentum left, why stop now?
The Orange(men) are now on a 5 game winning streak in Big East Tournament play. They will face the Georgetown Hoyas on Friday evening at 7 PM with a trip to the finals on the line. SU has a great opportunity to avenge its recent loss in the MCI Center. Will they take advantage of this and continue their surprising run through this tourney? Check back tomorrow evening for the answer!